11. A Fifteenth-Century Illustrated Shahnama of Firdawsi

By Jacinta Chen (@jchen852)

The Shahnama (Book of Kings) (977–1010) of Firdawsi (c. 940–1019/1025) was one of the most celebrated epics of the early modern Persianate world. Courts and individual patrons collected older manuscripts and commissioned copies of their own, giving artists plenty of creative license to experiment with the surrounding landscape, architecture, clothing, and other elements in their illustrations of mythical Persian kings, mighty heroes, and historical sovereigns.

During my first visit to the Cambridge University Library’s manuscript reading room, I laid my hands on an almost six-hundred-year-old Timurid copy of the Shahnama.[1] The Shahnama Project’s team has suggested that this copy was produced in Yazd or Shiraz in light of its similarities with other extant manuscripts.[2]

Primarily focused on the reign of the legendary king Kay Khusrau, this incomplete manuscript contains 11 illustrations, including four court scenes, three battles, an encounter with a strange sea creature, a hero on a hunt, and a game of polo.[3]

One particular painting depicts Kay Khusrau seated on his new throne following the abdication of his grandfather, Kay Kavus. A figure kneels on a geometric rug before Kay Khusrau, while various courtiers and nobles gather around to convey their respect.

Folio 148v of a Shahnama (1437-38) of Firdawsi held at the Cambridge University Library.

The court is held outdoors, amidst budding flowers and under golden skies, demonstrating a key link between Timurid sovereignty and the natural world. As a symbol of Kay Khusrau’s power, his golden throne is elevated and shaded by a blue-and-white tent.[4] The floral patterning as well as the color scheme of this tent are reminiscent of Timurid art and architecture—both of which were inspired by porcelain wares from Yuan and Ming China.[5]

While exemplifying Persianate artistic styles, surviving manuscripts of the Shahnama also reveal fascinating cross-cultural connections characteristic of the early modern world.


[1] The manuscript was purchased from Hannon, Watson & Co. in 1903. See E.G. Browne, A supplementary hand-list of the Muḥammadan manuscripts including all those written in the Arabic character (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1992), p. 129.

[2] Shahnama Project, “Shahnama (University Library Or. 420),” University of Cambridge Digital Library, accessed on December 2, 2022, https://cudl.lib.cam.ac.uk/view/MS-OR-00420/1.

[3] As part of restoration efforts at some point between its initial creation and now, all 281 folios were pasted into a book with leather binding, damaged sections of the Nastaliq script were written, and faded sections of the illustrations were repainted.

[4] Donald N. Wilber, “The Timurid Court: Life in Gardens and Tents,” Iran 17 (1979): 127–33.

[5] Lisa Golombek, “Timurid Potters Abroad,” Oriente Moderno 15 (76), no. 2 (1996): 577–86.

Image credit: Taken by author in Cambridge, United Kingdom, 2022.

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